Manuscript Rashi script old looking 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, )
A team of computer scientists and programmers in Jerusalem, working in
collaboration with Tel Aviv University, says it has achieved a breakthrough in
piecing together the disparate fragments of the Cairo Geniza.
Ya’acov Choueka, a Cairo-born chief computerization scientist, is leading a team
of 15 programmers from the Friedberg Geniza Project, which is collaborating with
Tel Aviv University to “solve the problem” of genizas, or Jewish archives, by
scanning the contents of 67 geniza collections around the world.
has been able to make more matches between fragments in a matter of weeks than
researchers have using traditional methods over the course of
For the past century, scholars have gleaned a wealth of
information from the documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, but research has
been hampered by the fact that they were found in pieces and were subsequently
split among dozens of collections.
Scholars seeking to piece together the
documents have been forced to travel to farflung locales and attempt to make the
scraps of paper fit together by hand, a long and cumbersome process.
Cairo Geniza was the archive of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, a suburb of
Cairo until it was swallowed by the Egyptian capital’s urban sprawl. The
documents there were in large part carted off to England, and Cambridge owns
some 60 percent of them.
For over a thousand years, sacred texts were
deposited in the storeroom, as well as documents attesting to the day-to-day
life of medieval Jewish and Arab residents of the Middle East and North Africa.
Included were many original manuscripts, variant texts of the Talmud and letters
from ordinary people.
Following agreements with Cambridge University and
other institutions, Choueka and his team scanned hundreds of thousands of
fragments at high resolution, enabling his team to perform more than 4 billion
Using several large networked computer clusters at Tel Aviv
University, his Jerusalem-based team was “reconstructing the original geniza,”
he said on Thursday.
Using several algorithms, his team aims to find all
of the “joints,” or matches between fragments, within two weeks. The results of
the research were being posted online at genizah.org for public viewing by
academics and laymen alike, revolutionizing the study of the geniza documents,
Physical attributes of the documents are measured by the
computers, and fragments from the same pages, and even by the same author, can
be paired together.
The results of the research are to be presented at
the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies, to be held at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem from July 28 to August 1.
Not every institution has been
cooperative, he said.
According to Choueka, the University of Oxford has
been unwilling to provide scans of its manuscripts that are incredibly important
to his work.
Talks with the university “did not come to a happy end,” he
said, adding that he did not know why.
Oxford did not immediately reply
to a request for comment.